Any bills to stem the flow of illegal immigration must be accompanied by reforms that give farmers access to a legal, reliable and stable workforce, 61 members of Congress say in a letter to the House leadership.

Freshman Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., whose district has a lot of labor-dependent agriculture, initiated the March 30 letter to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va. The letter is signed by 55 Republicans and six Democrats in agricultural districts across the nation.

That’s a “fairly impressive start” and shows a movement to bring balance to House immigration reform, said Mike Gempler, executive director of Washington Growers League in Yakima, Wash., in Newhouse’s district. Enforcement-only bills are unlikely to make it through the Senate, he said.

The letter notes the committee has begun consideration of immigration enforcement legislation such as E-verify, a computer-based means of checking the employment eligibility of new hires. While supportive of E-verify, the members wrote that enforcement of it without strong reforms to assure adequate farm labor will cause serious problems.

“Our farmers and ranchers must have access to a legal and reliable workforce in order to provide the world with a safe and abundant supply of food,” the letter states.

“It is imperative that any effort to implement E-verify be coupled with a solution to agriculture’s unique labor needs. Failure to couple these reforms together would create an unworkable situation for American agriculture,” the letter states.

They feared that E-verify enacted alone would eliminate what government, industry and labor unions have estimated as about 70 percent of the nation’s agricultural workforce that is in the country illegally.

The current H-2A foreign guestworker visa program for agricultural workers is unworkable and supplies only 10 percent of agricultural workers and doesn’t provide for dairy at all, the letter states.

Solutions range from amending the H-2A program to replacing it with a new program.

Signers of the letter include California Democrats Jim Costa and John Garamendi and California Republicans David Valadao, Devin Nunes, Doug LaMalfa, Jeff Denham and Ken Calvert.

Signers include Oregon Democrats Suzanne Bonamici and Kurt Schrader.

There’s also Idaho Republican Mike Simpson and Washington Republicans Newhouse, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Dave Reichert and Jaime Herrera Beutler.

Others signers are from New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, Tennesee, Louisiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Arkansas, Colorado and Nevada.

There were no signers from Texas or Arizona. Gempler said he’s disappointed and surprised by that. A well-designed guestworker program will help control illegal immigration, he said.

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